The years preceding 1959 were rife with racial tension across America. It was in this year that Lorraine Hansberry debuted what was to be her most prominent work, “A Raisin in the Sun”, set in the poor southside of Chicago. Historic events in African-American history—such as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, a landmark case deeming the segregation of schools based on race to be unconstitutional, as well as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts led by Rosa Parks—serve as the contextual surrounding for this play (Mays 1522). Its portraiture of the everyday struggles of African-Americans to overcome unfair circumstances is directly tied to the simmering sociopolitical climate for change. Hence, “A Raisin in the Sun” is often seen as a participant in pushing the needle forward for African-Americans, foreshadowing the changes to come in the next decade during to the Civil Rights Movement.
While often credited as a revolutionary milestone because of its groundbreaking and accurate depiction of everyday life for African-Americans, Robin Bernstein notes in his essay “Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun” that the play was particularly successful among white audiences. This response was specifically because the racial dimension of the play was overlooked in favor of universal themes contained within Western tradition. This “universalist interpretation of the play was used to deny and erase the [African American narrative]” which Hansberry had highlighted (Bernstein 21). Hence, the focus of my argument is to explain how the play’s uniquely African-American characteristics were ignored by white audiences in favor of universal themes. I argue that the distinctly African-American narrative in Hansberry’s play has historically been undermined due to the palatable manner in which it is presented, allowing for the appropriation of its message by white critics.
One aspect that draws the focus of the play away from racial issues specifically pertinent to African-Americans is its similarity to Arthur Miller’s play “Death of A Salesman”. In Miller’s play, Willy Loman is an older, struggling white salesman who hopes to provide enough for his family so that his sons can become successful. Over the course of the story, Willy continually tries to reconcile with why he and his sons have failed to achieve the success he had envisioned. “Death of A Salesman” is unmistakably American in its criticism of the disillusionment with the American dream.
Like Willy Loman, the protagonist Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” also has aspirations to achieve more and escape the life he’s currently living. They both embody the genre of the “Angry Young Man”, whose central focus magnifies the everyday struggles of working-class men (Orem 190). Hansberry herself notes how Walter Lee’s narrative is not supposed to be distinctly African-American; rather “he’s portrayed in a way where white audiences can also relate. “‘Walter Younger is an American more than he is anything else’” (Mays 1520). Hansberry creates the paradigm in which Walter Lee Younger is American first, and African-American second. As one critic noted, Walter Lee falls into the category of “the angry young man who happen[ed] to be a negro” (Bernstein 16). By deemphasizing his race, white audiences can identify with Walter Lee Younger by equating their own experiences with his, thereby diluting the specificity of the African-American narrative. Furthermore, like Willy Loman, Walter Lee understands that “something” is blocking his progress; however, he makes no attempt to alter the system itself (Mays 1520). Realistically, the “something” that is preventing Walter Lee’s family from prosperity is systemic racism and discrimination. Yet the play only seems to hint at institutionalized and racist societal barriers, focusing instead on Walter Lee’s own lack of racial pride. Over the course of the play, Walter is opposed to spending his father’s life insurance money on a new house. Instead, he loses thousands of dollars investing in new business ventures. In the end, Walter eventually decides that they are going to move into their new home in the white neighborhood. The drawn-out decision reduces the focus on racial conflict, and instead focuses on Walter’s own progression of maintaining racial pride. The fate of the family seemingly rests just as much on Walter Lee’s indecision, as it does on the opposition by the white neighbors represented by Mr. Linder.
The play’s palatability to white audiences is exemplified by the removal of an original scene during the show’s original theatrical run. This scene, including Mrs. Johnson, was written to appear in the beginning of Act II, where the Younger’s neighbor comes in and questions their decision to move into their new home, as she then holds up a newspaper that reads “NEGROS INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK—BOMBED!” (Hansberry 102). Audiences during this period would have been uncomfortably aware of this reference, as the play’s content mirrored its context of similar acts of hate that took place during this time. Mrs. Johnson then proceeds to widen the divide between white viewers and African-American by saying “Ain’t it something how bad these here white folks in getting here in Chicago! Lord, getting so you think you right down in Mississippi!” (Hansberry 100). The separation of white and black, as well as the direct portrayal of whites as antagonists could have caused the play to fall under the “typical dismissal of black theatre “as social rather than artistic” (Bernstein 21). Avoiding the Manicheanstruggle of white versus black is paramount in order to keep the white audiences from feeling defensive and less receptive to the play. This deleted scene also includes racially charged language such as “cracker” and “n**ger”, which would have reinforced the tense racial dimensionality of the play (Hansberry 100). Without this scene, the sole mention of the bombings occurs in the first act:
Walter: Set off another bomb yesterday.
Ruth: [Maximum indifference] Did they?
(Hansberry, Norton 1459).
In accordance with Ruth’s calloused response, the audience is inclined to repress uncomfortable emotions and accept the news as a somber consequence of racial conflict at the time with passivity. While this scene does address the unfortunate circumstances of African-American life, the casual response to the vague news creates separation between the family and the bombings, as if the latter is almost entirely irrelevant to the former. Thus, without the scene with Mrs. Johnson, the very real danger facing the Youngers as a result of them moving into the white neighborhood, is only subtly implied.
At the heart of Hansberry’s play is the strain between universality and the capture of a unique racial experience. A black poet who was alive during its premiere and witnessed this era of change was Audre Lorde, who wrote emphatically in 1979 that the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. And while she spoke to how social reform for women of color can only be achieved by embracing differences from the elite White, this assertion is acutely relevant when analyzing this dramatic work (Lorde 112). Because although “A Raisin in the Sun” pioneered African-American representation in theatre, the true significance of the play was lost on white audiences due to its familiar story and deliberate effort to indirectly address the racial issues that were strained at the time of its production. For if the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, “A Raisin in the Sun” lived in a house deaf to its powerful message, and we may only hope it begins to be heard today.
Honor Pledge: RB
Bernstein, Robin. “Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun” Modern Drama Volume 42 (1999): 16-27
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: A Drama in Three Acts, New York: Random House, 1959, pp.100-102.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun, The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J.Mays, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 1457-1520.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” Sister Outsider: Essay and Speechs by Audre Lorde. Crossing Press Berkeley, 2007.
Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 1520-1522.
Orem, Sarah. “Signifyin(g) When Vexed: Black Feminist Revision, Anger, and A Raisin in the Sun.” Modern Drama, vol. 60, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 189–211.